If you have an inclination for time-attack, canyon carving, or are just looking to hone your wheelsmithing abilities, Jim Russell Racing Schools has a program for you. Thanks to a partnership with Mitsubishi, Jim Russell now offers the Lancer Evolution Experience, placing students behind the wheel of a new EVO X. You're probably thinking a racing school that involves driving an EVO is going to be ridiculously expensive. It's not. The one-day program costs $995. Considering track day fees and cost of fuel, brake pads, tires, and general maintenance, to show up in the paddocks for under a grand and drive all day is a bargain. Throw in the fact that it's behind the wheel of a turbocharged, AWD Mitsu, and it's damn-near a steal.
Held at Northern California's Infineon Raceway, the Lancer Evolution Experience starts with instruction in the morning, going over the often overlooked fundamentals of driving and racing theory. Our sensei for the day was Paul Gerrard, Director of Global Training for Jim Russell. If his name sounds familiar, it's because he's piloted AMS Performance's Unlimited-class EVOs in Super Lap Battle and One Lap America. Paul's been competing for years, is a gifted driver, knows EVOs like the back of his hand, and more importantly, has a patience threshold that would frustrate Mohandas Ghandi-bad quality in a bar fight, blessing for an instructor. Paired with him was Nico Rondet, Chief Instructor of the FJR-50 open-wheel program (which also, coincidentally, runs the Mitsubishi 4G63 engine found in older EVOs).
After an hour or so of classroom instruction, it was time to put the knowledge to practice. The first in-car training was a trail-braking exercise that had you go from a full-throttle launch down a coned path to a hard brake, gradually releasing the brake pedal as you turned into the corner. A test of balance and input control, it sounds easier than it was. The instructor, Paul, stood at the entrance of the corner providing advice through walkie-talkies. Remember the whole thing about patience? This is where it started to kick in. Next was a field of evenly spaced cones for the slalom portion, a lesson in anticipation and balance. Again, Paul stood outside, providing constructive criticism regarding entry angle, speed, and amount of steering input.
Combining the first two skills, the third session had us on an autocross course. Speed, braking, entry and exit lines, and steering all came into play as each of us had to maneuver through a field of orange pylons. For this round of wheeled education, Paul sat in the passenger seat of the car, offering feedback and corrections to help navigate the tight path. Despite being AWD, thanks to Mitsubishi's engineers adjusting the brake bias away from the front and the torque vectoring diff, the EVO had almost no understeer. According to Paul, "Technology available and utilized by different automotive manufacturers is mostly the same. The difference in how a car drives and responds is purely a philosophical choice-it's up to the engineers to dictate how a car will drive during the programming of its software. Because of the aggressive characteristics of the EVO X from the factory, the techniques we teach today are the same as our open-cockpit Formula program."
Now that the class was warmed up, it was time for the road course. Nestled in the hills of Sonoma wine country, Infineon is a 2.52-mile track with dramatic elevation changes (160 feet between the highest and lowest point), making it as challenging as it is scenic. A fast course, most of it is driven above Third gear with many of the corners linked. Using the knowledge learned from the autocross session earlier, Paul jumped in his own EVO and took us out in a lead-follow fashion. With Paul showing us the lines and radioing tips, our group's confidence started to show. After just five laps, I've decided that Infineon ranks second on my list of favorite tracks.
After a few more sessions consisting of a Scandinavian Flick and other autocross techniques, we went back out to the road course. Filled with knowledge and experience, our entire group went significantly faster than we had previously. From going around Infineon at about six-tenths, we were now running at nine-tenths of the EVO X's ability, occasionally touching ten-tenths with small all-wheel drifts at the apex of corners, all in the span of just one day. While I won't be out breaking time-attack records any time soon, the skills gained at Jim Russell were invaluable. Plus, it was a blast. Super Lap Battle Finals, here I come!
Jim Russell's Lancer Evolution Experience teaches four important principles for driving fast and safe both on and off the track.
1. Seating Position
Proper driving position is important to providing the necessary leverage and input. Arms should extend out to the 12-o'clock position with both wrists resting on the steering wheel. Knees should not be locked and your left leg should be firmly planted on the dead pedal for support.
2. Steering Technique
Contrary to popular belief, the less steering input, the better. Hands should be on the 9- and 3-o'clock position (not 10 and 2) with the lightest grip you can get away with.
This is where the driver's skill affects the car's performance capability, carefully balancing load and transferring with inputs of the steering wheel and pedals.
4. Anticipation Versus Reaction
Because of the number of variables on the track, it's important to plan and not rely on reflex. Think further, not faster. Or as Paul puts it," Racing is a sport for the smart, not necessarily the brave."